In Diva Watch, we'll profile the passionate, diverse and fascinating performers who light up Denver's drag community. We're expanding on our Diva Dozen list from earlier this year by asking a series of questions to get a peek underneath the make-up.
The 9 p.m. Sunday slot at Charlie’s has been home to many a legendary and exciting drag show, including the recent Best of Denver Winner Denver’s Divas as well as the beloved Tucked and historic Vivid. But with the recent departure of Divas top queen Shanida Lawya to Chicago, it’s time for a new face — and recent Austin, Texas transplant Kai Lee Mykels has just the right brushes and lipstick to be that face. Last Sunday saw the debut of her new, weekly show, Kai Lee’s Kiki (a “kiki," for those not in the know, is a party where guests can be fabulous, gossip and have a gay old time). It’s a testament to this “good Christian woman” and her ability and intentions that she was handed these reins so quickly into her six-year drag career. We talked with Mykels about her plans for the show and what put her in front of one of Denver’s best showcases of drag talent.
Kai Lee Mykels: The ripe old age of twenty-seven.
I am a director of music and I conduct choirs. I’m a good old Christian choir director. It’s one of my passions that I’ve always loved. I have two degrees in music — a BA of music in vocal education and a masters in music. Kai Lee is my artistic outlet outside of work. It’s great to go to a job that I love that doesn’t feel like a job and then have an option for me to be on stage.
You’re not from around these parts; where is your hometown?
I grew up on a small East Texas cattle farm, but it wasn’t until I was able to move away that I could get into drag. It’s very similar there, yet different. Texas is a huge, huge, huge pageant scene and it’s cool here because the court system (ICRME) is a pageant system and all of the money goes to charity, whereas in Texas you spend thousands of dollars to put on a pageant — it’s a lot of big gowns, big hair, big jewelry but it’s all for you. Seeing that charity aspect infusing a community is great. What I love about Denver drag is that with RuPaul’s Drag Race having an impact, there has become so much variety: You’ve got pageant girls, dancing queens, campy queens like myself and beyond.
Tell us about the first time that you ever performed in drag.
I was absolutely HORRENDOUS. I was horrendous BUT I thought I looked on point. Anyone can go on Facebook to see how I’ve changed over six years, but you will see a man in a dress with some liquid eyeliner eyebrows and some Maybelline, and a black bob wig. I was doing a benefit for my drag sister Nadine Hughes who let me make my debut. I wore a red dress that looked like it came from Little House on the Prairie and it was just bad. It was bad. I mean it was BAD. But we all start from somewhere, and that’s why you’ll never hear me critique a new girl in a negative manner. I’ll say, “Yes you need to work on your makeup" — but hell, I still need to work on my makeup. There’s room for improvement in every artistic form, but “Baby if you wanna try, you go!” I tried and I got through the three minutes of that song, but it was awful.
What is the origin of your drag name?
My drag name came from, well, my first name was Kai Monroe. I had a drag mother in Austin who was a kind-hearted person but just up and left the city with no warning but my next drag mother, who is still my drag mother, Rachel Mykels, saw something in me and I proved myself to her, got and earned my name and worked hard for it. I added the Lee because I liked it, like an Asian lady at a buffet: Kai Lee!
What cultural icon do you admire the most and why?
I absolutely love Bette Midler. One, because I look like her, on her ‘70s album at least. She’s fun and quirky, a funny personality but she’s good at what she does, I really look up to her. Bette is my big one. I also look up to actress Emma Watson, I think she’s gorgeous and trying to do some great things in the world.
Explain what it feels like to get into all of your drag and hit a stage.
It’s thrilling. It makes me feel good and it brings out a new side of me. In general, I’m a really shy person until I get to know you; a lot of people can think I’m rude or bitchy, cunty, and I’m really not. Going back from when I was in high school growing up in East Texas and being in an abusive verbal relationship I have low self-esteem for a man — but whenever I put on makeup and hit a stage it creates a different platform and it makes me happy and makes me comfortable in my skin. Kai Lee has helped me become more comfortable than I ever was before. I love entertaining and I love being able to transform into someone else and be on a mic and make people laugh or poke a little fun at them, as nice as a drag queen can. I’m a man in heels and those tight shoes can test you, so if I poke a little fun and get bitchy you can blame the shoes. It’s adrenalizing, is that even a word?
Who/what inspires you to keep pulling out the makeup brushes every day?
The audience, absolutely. They make me feel good. They enjoy what I do, they react to what I do and I love it. Someone else who inspires me now, honestly, is one of mentors at my job. My boss, she’s kind of become like my second mom, she’s completely supportive of what I do and it’s cool because my family back in Texas, it’s kind of crazy, they have absolutely no idea that I do drag. I came out of the closet when I was fourteen, and it was hard. I moved out my junior year of high school — I wasn’t kicked out, I made that choice — and going out on my own, I had to grow up pretty fast. It’s cool to have that supportive mothering figure now, though, that comes to my shows as opposed to if I was to ever tell my biological family and knowing they would flip out. It’s just great to have that support.
Favorite brand/item of makeup?
Honestly, it’s this Coty powder. Not because of what it does to my face but I love it because I love the smell; it reminds me of my grandma! Coty Airspun Loose Face Powder. Original formula since 1935!
Name three very important items in your purse/drag bag you can’t leave home without.
Mints or Altoids. When you’re on stage or mingling, you’re in people’s faces and if your breath stinks you do not want people remembering you as a stinky-mouthed drag queen. 2) Perfume, 'cuz I’m a man and I perspire and I don’t want to stink. 3) My lipstick or lip gloss. It’s the one makeup item that goes everywhere with me no matter what.
When you’re out in drag, what one thing does everyone want to talk to you about? What do you WISH they would actually talk to you about?
Lately, it’s been the new show! I’m so excited! A lot of people ask me about my earrings. “Are those heavy? How do you keep them on? Are they heavy?” — that’s weirdly the biggest question I get. And what do I wish they would talk to me about, well, of course, world peace!
If your drag persona had a theme song, what would it be?
It’s one of my favorite songs to perform, a Bette Midler song called “I’m Beautiful.” She sings “I’m beautiful, I’m beautiful, I’m beautiful DAMMIT.” It’s just talking about really just not caring what people think about you and owning yourself.
They’re casting the movie about your life; what actor and actress would be perfect to play both sides of your coin?
An actor for my boy side… Jude Law, 'cuz I think he’s handsome. He’d just have to work on my Southern accent. Female, a young Bette Midler from the 1980s, hands down. To play both sides? Johnny Depp, I think he’s versatile and could do it all.
Which is harder, given your drag profession: tucking (the legendary act of hiding a man's "candy" while performing) or having a relationship?
Having a relationship 100 percent. It’s hard and it makes me sad that we live in a community where we want to be accepted and want the world to accept us, and we’re getting there with gay marriage being legal now, but we’re also a community that’s very separated. I’m very forward on first dates because Kai Lee is part of my life and will always be a part of my life and it makes me sad that you can see a date’s face just glaze over when I tell them about her. I want to be honest and let you know what’s going on in my life, I’m not going to hide that. My one successful relationship, which lasted for a year and a half, it was funny because he started doing drag, too, after a while! I’m not sure what the disconnect is because I’m not opposed to dating another drag queen, though I sure hope they have a different show size than me! Is it the whole masculine versus feminine issue? The hopeful person in me that believes in hope, hopes it isn’t — but I think it is. What’s here in your heart, to me at least, is what matters. It’s hard to even try to figure out what’s behind the whole masc/fem thing.
What does the word “family” mean to you?
God, it means so many different things. I have drag family, I have a biological family, I have friends whom I consider family. Just people who love unconditionally and love and accept me for who I am. I absolutely 100 percent have it here in Denver. The girls I perform with here at Charlie’s, the girls outside of Charlie’s who I hope will start coming here now that I have that authority to bring them. It’s a big family for sure.
There’s a bank error in your favor, giving you $15,000. What’s the first thing that you buy?
The first thing I’m going to buy, and I always say it wrong, is a pair of Louboutin red bottom shoes and then I’m going to buy a trip to Germany, because I want to go to Germany and I love German men. I know it’s crazy, I love Latinos, don’t get me wrong, Latinos are my favorite but German men are good with money and I am not! Really, though, I love to travel, this year alone I’ve been on a plane four times and I have a few more trips planned before the end of the year.
When we check back on you in three years (2018), what do you think you will be up to in your drag career?
Hopefully uniting a community. That’s my goal as an entertainer and I love unity, I hate separation and there IS separation in the Denver drag community. If anyone says there isn’t, they’re very much blind to that fact. By having this platform I can do that and bring people together.
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Are you excited for Kai Lee’s Kiki to take Denver by storm? What can people expect?
I’m nervous as hell, to be honest! In Austin I had three shows a week at the most and things were different; there are more people to worry about here and a show can go on three hours! Nervous in a good way, though. Shanida left some big shoes to fill and there are things that I’m going to do differently, but we’ll be trying a bunch of things over the next few weeks and months, from look, concept and people. The same great cast but with some very special guests and folks who haven’t hit this stage in a long while. Come to Kai Lee’s Kiki if you want to be entertained and see one of the best shows around and have fun. One of my mottos for my drag children back in Texas, and here really, is when you’re doing drag you need to be having fun and if you’re not, then what’s the point? I’m having fun!
Catch Kai Lee Mykels as the host of Kai Lee’s Kiki, with co-host Felony Misdemeanor, at 9 p.m. every Sunday at Charlie’s, 900 East Colfax. Schedule permitting, you will see her on many other stages in Denver; check your local listings.